Friday, April 11, 2014

Youths are calling: Are we listening?

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 31/1/2013
There is a perception inside Saudi Arabia and abroad that Saudi youths are idle, humorless and disengaged from the political and societal movements in their country.
About 10 years ago my circle of friend had often complained about some men and women in our own generation whose main concern was less about developing a work ethic and becoming active in the community and more about spending time smoking sheesha, sipping coffee at outdoor cafes and cruising the Corniche.
Those are some of the Saudis of my generation that got caught between the oil boom of the 1970s and what was once called boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Perhaps they can best be described as Saudi Arabia’s lost generation.
Whatever path the now 40-somethings have taken is now set in stone. They have chosen their future. However, the new generation is on the cusp of dramatic change in our society. They are a far different lot. They have taken notice of their country’s strengths and failings and have turned to social media to comment. They are a generation of observers with a dynamic take on the world they inhabit.
The medium they are using is YouTube in which comedy programming is used to tackle social phenomenon in a startling way. Aish el ee, or “What is that?” is a comedy program staffed by young Saudi men. It is the top show watched throughout the Arab world because it tackles social issues in a funny way.
Sahi, or “Awake” takes on more topical issues like the fatal Jeddah floods and the work of the Jeddah municipality. Sahi is not afraid to highlight ministries that fail to complete projects. These programs are low-budget affairs recorded by Saudis in a small one-room studio. Each program runs about 10 to 15 minutes.
Ala Attair is another TV program. Commentators pick up news stories from the Arabic press and write comedy sketches that lampoon social norms, not unlike the US program, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” For example, one segment discusses how drivers control women’s lives. Another may offer tips to women who need a mahram to help them conduct business. Ala Attair’s solution is to have women carrying around a male doll dressed in a thobe that is kept in a purse for emergencies.
Some programs are interspersed with other, more serious segments that include interviews with Saudis in malls. One Saudi, for example, complained to the camera that, “I have done everything … I studied hard, graduated with high marks and went to all the companies (for a job) … they accuse us of being lazy and being careless (but) I am ready, I just want a chance.”
Remarkably, some of these programs attract as many as 300 million viewers across the Middle East. The comments are often as funny as the programs and provide a window into young Saudis’ attitudes about their country, their wants and needs, and disappointments.
More important than simply entertainment, the Saudi government can learn a great deal about what young people think, especially as ministries prepare to introduce new regulations that affect society in general or more specific issues like employment. Their comedic commentaries are a constructive way to express disappointment without being confrontational.
After all, the median age of Saudis is 25 years old with nearly 30 percent under the age of 14. This should give the Saudis of my generation and my parents’ generation pause to consider that Saudis under the age of 30 are largely unrepresented in the decision-making process of the government. Public dialogue is not available to them and there are no clubs or common gathering places, other than sheesha parlors, that allow them to express ideas. It’s as if they don’t exist. Yet they are the backbone of our society. Frankly, it’s negligent to ignore this segment of society.
Behind the jokes is a real earnestness among Saudis to do the right thing for their country. They obviously love Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah and are true patriots. That’s why these programs have drawn a loyal following among millions of young people.
It’s in Saudi Arabia’s best interest to pay attention to them.

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